E.-P. Salonen, Lachen verlernt (inter alia), J. Koh (2009)
Adams, Road Movies (inter alia), J. Koh, R. Uchida (2010)
Adams explained the concept of this program as centered on "what's ethnic about a work of art," combining music that had some "connection with the demotic, with the daily culture" of a place. That included a diptych of two central European composers both known for their absorption of folk music and the rhythms of their languages. Koh gave Janáček's violin sonata a compelling sense of narrative, a speech-like fluidity, with a beautifully limpid tone on the violin, especially velvety and soft in the striking second movement ("Ballada"). At the keyboard Uchida was also best here, creating a misty veil of sound with the rolled piano chords, although there was some stickiness in her octaves in the first movement. The third movement had a folk-like heartiness, with Koh drawing out a raucous tone through the mute in the B section. Bartók's 1944 sonata for solo violin, on the second half, was the highlight of this excellent program, strikingly different in its folk sublimation from the Janáček. Each phrase and idea was so clearly etched, all the more remarkable because Koh played without a score, making some vicious sounds but also playing with many colors and exceptional suavity. The fuga, with all of its demanding double stops, was so clear and clean in the overlaying of contrapuntal voices, with almost faultless intonation. The last two movements featured a symphonic conception of sound, with solo sections answered by fuller textures as in a sort of concerto, and the nocturnal serenade section marked by ghostly echos in harmonics. A tour de force performance all around.
Where Koh and Uchida sounded best together was in the oldest piece on the program, Schubert's A major sonata (D. 574), the almost banal A theme of the first movement treated guilelessly, with Koh's radiant simplicity of tone and Uchida's light, lovely touch serving this tuneful music so well. It is a happy-go-lucky sort of piece, its rollicking scherzo second movement playful more than mischievous and a tender-hearted trio -- unfortunately, the return to the scherzo caught the page-turner by surprise, the first of two such gaffes. Uchida's consummate professionalism kicked in and she recovered expertly in spite of it all. The slow movement had no whiff of tragedy about it, just avian trills and twittering traded between the instruments, while in the finale the piece finally cut loose and danced its way home. The contemporary slot was filled by Esa-Pekka Salonen's Lachen verlernt, a chaconne composed in 2002, which Koh also played at Strathmore last December. As an unaccompanied piece it demanded comparison with the Bartók, against which it held its own both formally and in terms of virtuosity, music that is enjoyable both to listen to and to reflect on afterward, again impressing by Koh's pure intonation, even in double stops.
Stephen Brookes, At Atlas, Jennifer Koh offers an unforgettable whirlwind of sound (Washington Post, May 25)